Beauty of Sisley's art is a soothing caress for the eye and mind


March 14, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

There could not be an artist in the world less in step with current fashions in art than Alfred Sisley, and that's one of the things that makes "Sisley: Master Impressionist" at the Walters Art Gallery so refreshing.

In a time when it is considered just the thing for art to address social issues, Sisley has nothing to champion, nothing to push, nothing to defend.

In a time when art becomes increasingly strident and confrontational, Sisley's work is peaceful, quiet, self-effacing.

In a time when to stand still is to be quickly left behind as fad succeeds fad, with Sisley we are brought the work of a man who almost literally stood still for more than 30 years. From the 1860s through the 1890s he painted essentially the same things in essentially the same way in essentially the same place.

His manner was impressionism, and his matter was the landscape in and around the small towns outside Paris, on which the industrial age had made little impression: Louveciennes, Villeneuve-la-Garenne, Marly-le-Roi, Moret-sur-Loing.

The typical Sisley -- and there is a typical Sisley -- is apt to feature either a road curving off into the distance or a strong diagonal -- a bridge, for instance -- coming in from the left. Some water, a river bank, a few low buildings, trees and other foliage, and above all a sky that gives the whole picture its tone: its light, its mood. All painted with a technique that, rather than calling attention to itself, supports the effect of the whole.

If that makes Sisley sound dull, well, he is as dull as gliding gently down a river on a sunlit summer afternoon; as dull as a picnic in the country; as dull as reading a good book on a porch swing. He is never, to be sure, exciting; but the serene beauty of his art caresses the eye, soothes the spirit and charms the mind.

He is the least well-known of the major impressionists, probably for several reasons, as this lovely, not-to-be-missed exhibit and its accompanying catalog make clear. Although he was born and lived all his life in France (with the exception of a few brief trips to England), he was of British parentage and remained a British citizen. Thus he falls between two stools, with neither the French nor the British able to claim him completely.

He was somewhat reticent in person. Although apparently capable of high spirits as a young man, the genteel poverty of his adult life, the cares of supporting a family by his art and his general lack of success made him increasingly withdrawn. He brought the same quality of reserve to his work, and as a result it excited less attention than that of the other great impressionists. In a show in which their work might be reviled, his might be largely overlooked.

In his excellent recent study, "Sisley" (which is not connected to the current exhibit), art historian Richard Shone recognizes this quality of Sisley's art: "He never shouts or dramatizes, never tries to appear more interesting than he is (as Courbet and Monet sometimes do)."

Some of Sisley's best and most famous paintings are of flooded rivers, but even before such potentially dramatic material Sisley remains reserved. Writing of "Ferry to the Ile-de-la-Loge -- Flood" (1872), Shone notes: "The tree and mooring-post mirrored in the floodwater, and the swoop of rope across to the ferry house, increase the distance to the far bank and suggest the calamitous implications of the scene. But Sisley's unrhetorical temperament forbids him from emphasizing this element."

Mary Anne Stevens, editor of the current exhibit's catalog, attempts in her essay to make Sisley's work topical. His devotion to small towns and rural rather than urban settings is seen as making him something of a 19th-century environmentalist, protesting in his quiet way the horrors of the industrial age. But Shone's opinion is closer to the mark: "It is inconceivable that Sisley would have made any political point in his paintings; they are almost arrogantly aloof from any such message -- political, social or autobiographical (in any narrative sense) -- and remain, in the old-fashioned use of the word, 'pure' paintings."

True to impressionism

The greatest irony of his life is that he has been the least considered of the major impressionists precisely because he was the quintessential impressionist. In the decades of the 1880s and 1890s, the art world developed beyond impressionism; but Sisley, though his style changed to some degree, remained true to it. Stevens points out that when Matisse asked Pissarro who was a typical impressionist, "In his answer Pissarro nominated a single artist -- Sisley."

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